Tag Archives: Dear Jim

Dear Jon . . . (#20) Re: Reading, Time and Tide

It was somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit light headed, maybe you should drive…’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar and all around us the sky was full of bletters reading:

“Dear Jon,

It’s true, I talk a lot about re-reading. One of the reasons I prefer to buy a book than take it out from a library is because the thought occurs that I might want to re-read such a such a book. But it is more talk than action. I very rarely re-read books. This truth is documented. Records – those held in the Archives, walled up in a secret underground facility near Ultima Thule – suggest that the last book I actually re-read was Lawrence Durrell’s Tunc(1968) in April 2015. So not recently. Because, no, apparently 2015 isn’t recent anymore. Time flies…”

Click here for the rest.

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Dear Jim… (#17) Re: On Converting The Philistines

BY JON PILL

I think reversing one’s position, or changing one’s mind – or in this case, maybe the idea of an ‘aesthetic education’ might be worth discussing. But I’ll leave you to flesh that out…” – Jim

Dear Jim,

In your last letter you gave me the broadest of briefs. To throw out a few thoughts on changing one’s mind or – you said, as if the two things were obviously linked – ‘aesthetic education’. I’ll deal with the latter because although less interesting to me it won’t spiral into a ramble. A tight 500 is the goal. This bletter needs sending today and I left it all until the final countdown.

Cue music:

 

In terms of aesthetical edugogy, I think it’s a valuable thing for one to do to oneself. But I’d be tentative about getting super evangelical about it. While there are somewhat weak arguments about art engaged humans being better citizens, I think liking art is more of a self-help thing than a social responsibility. With that caveat in mind, here’s what I think.

The general goal of the court mandated aesthetic education, as put together by Minister for Art Appreciation for Jon Pill would be, I think, to get the student – i.e. me  – to think about art intentionally. I think this is what is meant by that buzz word ‘engage’.

The human brain can engage with art at all sorts of levels, but the zeroth level that we all do pretty instinctively will always be: Do I like it? And here is where it is easiest to stop. With the Yes/No answer.

I come from a family of readers, my Dad read to me before I could read and listening to him read remained a family activity, especially on holiday where The Hobbit and the Harry Potter saga often made short work of train journeys.

Reading for myself was encouraged and there would be a regular exchange of cheap second hand paperbacks between the various members of the family. Redwall and Alastair MacLean, Jack Higgins and The Phantom Tollbooth. Stuff like that.

So there were books. But there was also a general air of philistinism. The first question I am asked whenever I say I have read Classic Book X or Epic Poem Y to a family member is always: ‘But is it actually any good? Or is it just one of those books your supposed to read?’

The inherent assumption behind the word ‘good’ is that it be enjoyable*. There was no room for a book to be challenging, the unpleasant, the interesting, the beautiful, unless it came with a good plot. In a house full of Austen lovers, I am the only one who likes Emma [Edit: My Dad has corrected me on this. He also likes Emma. Like father, like son.]. People hate Emma because they dislike Emma. That’s was all it takes: an irritating character that rubbed you up the wrong way. Never mind that her irritating faults are the driving force of a series of engaging dramas, never mind the amusing ironies her faults breed, never mind the impressive skill involved in what is pretty much the invention of the close-third narrator.

That is a difficult attitude to shake. Because good = enjoyable is a massive barrier between art and artee. A key part of that aesthetic education is just shedding the idea that an immediate sense of pleasure is the only positive response to something.

So interrogating Do I like it? with intentionality would level one of converting the barbarians. Once you have your yes or no follow it up with: Why do I like/dislike it? What do I like about it? What is it making me feel? What thoughts is it giving me?

I never learned to ask these questions formally. It’s been a slow trial-and-error sort of thing mostly through talking about film with friends, and more recently through reading widely, going to galleries, watching plays. And I’m still not always great about thinking like this. But, you know, fail better and all that. #selfhelpisnotselflove.

There are, of course, a ton of other ways of engaging with art, but cultivating this kind of self-aware thoughtfulness is the basis for all the rest of it. The basis of a lot of living well. #unexaminedlives. We’re not talking about turning  into a – hold back the sick – literary theorists after all. Just helping them get a bit more out of swirls of paint or lines of ink.

What the next stage in an aesthetic education might look like I’ll leave to you, someone who has spent five years formally studying fiction-books, in your next bletter.

Yours appreciatively,

Jon

P.S. *This issue of enjoyment vs. other stuff, Greene’s entertainments versus novels, and genre versus literature is all something we’ll have to come back to some day. For now though, I will leave that can of worms on the shelf beside the baked beans and Spaghetti-Os.

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Dear Jon . . . (#14) Re: On Waste Lands of Straight People

BY JON PILL

‘You’ve got mail,’ said the computer electronically.

‘Read it to me, computer,’ I spoke organically.

‘So many,’ it quothed digitally.

‘So many what?’ queried I fleshily…

I had not thought death had undone so many. -T.S. Eliot

Dear Jon,

Well, I hope you had a merry Christmas time. One way to address your question is to refer you to my very early reading this year in which I made a sally into the 1700s. I read Robinson Crusoe, I read Gulliver’s Travels, I read Tristram Shandy. And the last of these showed me clearly that the madcap and what might be called ‘the experimental’ is inherent to the canon. That cray was there, all the time… Click HERE for the rest of Jim’s bletter.

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Dear Jim . . . (#13) Re: Fiction vs. Nonfiction

BY JON PILL

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”[…] In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments[…]” – The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your last bletter. Sorry this one is late, I blame everyone but myself.*

As to your question: What works of fiction do you feel has taken your imagination and expanded it in this way? the short answer is: None.

The longer answer is: None that I can think of but also I guess all of them sort of a bit but not really all of them dot com.

Which is to say, I don’t remember a work of fiction drastically changing my world view or granting me sudden insight into worlds hitherto unseen. To some extent every book does this a bit but I find the effect one of accretion, one book gives you a look at someone else’s point of view, another someone else’s. It all adds up, but I rarely have that flash of insight from a fiction-book.

So, I am not going all They Came Together** or denying the ability of fiction to expand one’s horizons, or to give one insight into – as in your examples – the life of a black Americans, but for me, it is always non-fiction that cuts new channels in my brain. The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans would be the books that did for me what Citizen and Invisible Man did for you.

Another book I would recommend for this reason is The Ruins of Empire which was a fascinating insight into the post-Colonial cultures of India, China, Egypt and the Middle East. That rendered the grievances more, to use that word again, more complexly and personally than I had previously considered.

Perhaps this is because, until a few years ago I didn’t read much serious fiction. I read nonfiction, I watched movies and TV***, and fiction was picked up for light entertainment.

Perhaps it is because non-fiction has a greater power for directed brain thrilling perspective shifts for me. Almost the books which I come back to over and over again in my mind are nonfiction. My intellectual biography could be written in The… titles****: The Theory of PokerThe Selfish GeneThe Problems of Philosophy. I remember where I was when I read them, and how they moved my brain in one direction or the other. I guess these sort of texts amount to a sort of personal canon.

But your question was more precise, about books that helped imagining Others complexly. On that score books like my A-level psychology textbook, played a role. And sections of The Stuff of Thought by Stephen Pinker, especially concerning the idea of taboo. The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt is another book that for many reasons was empathy expanding. Some of the Bhuddist literature I’ve read did the same thing in different ways and for different reasons: The Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness and Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner Mind. Their merits are probably fairly obvious, so the one I’ll pick out to expand on is Derren Brown’s Tricks of the Mind.

Tricks is an odd grab bag of a book, made up of chapters on each of the things Brown is interested in. It lays out his aesthetic theories about magic and misdirection, gives guides on lie detection and memory tricks, but also contains the science of – and his speculations on – the nature of hypnosis and influence.

The hypnosis chapter combined the science of influence (Milgram, Zimbardo, Ariely, et al.), the ability of the brain to trick itself, and ideas about intentionality and self-justification. The implications go far beyond hypnosis, every human interaction does to some extent the same thing that a Mentalist does with his ‘hypnotised’ subject.

It gave me a far better sense of how I and you and everyone else on planet Earth live their lives. We all do what we mean to do only a tiny fraction of the time, our brains seamlessly filling in the justifications afterwards. Our experiences are largely lies, memories even more so.

The world looks different when you realise no one is in control of even all their actions. That a missed lunch can have as great an effect as someone’s ethical code. It’s a little easier to forgive, and to see oneself in the same position.

I would recommend Tricks of the Mind to almost anyone, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to have the effect on them it had on me, I don’t think it would have had that effect if I had read it a few years later. Personal canons are exactly that.

I know in many ways your personal canon reflect the literary canon quite closely, and you have always a broad respect and interest in that trunk line of culture leading back inexorably towards Gilgamesh. But, I’d be interested to hear how your recent batch of reading all madcap and experimentalist has altered your views on the works of the past?

Yours hypnotically,

Jon

*I should also probably point out that ‘imagining others complexly’ is not my phrase, but John Green’s.

**

*** For example House M.D. was probably one of the biggest fictional influences on how I thought about other people, ethical questions, even epistemology. The way that show used its ensemble cast to create a dialectic on whatever the issue of the week was. There are few shows as entertaining as House that also have the intellectual heft of those first three seasons.

**** Also Michael Crichton novels.

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Dear Jon . . . (#12) Re: Imagining All the People

BY JON PILL

You’ve got mail! Well, not you. Me, really, but you can read it too.

Dear Jon,

I think that I mostly agree with your thoughts there. There is a lot you say about how words can divide us. How they frustrate debate or inflame resentment. I wanted to engage with this by talking about how words can do the opposite – specifically in relation to the imagination. What you termed: thinking about Others complexly. The imagination is often a slave of the passions too – it can both be something that spurs us onto the better futures that we see for ourselves, or can twist the facts to create parallel universes. . .[click here for the rest]”

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Dear Jim… (#11) Re: Only a Straight White Male Can Call A Straight White Male ‘Privileged’.

BY JON PILL

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” – Hume

Dear  Jim,

I sympathise with the many feelings in your previous letter – try some ginger tea, it could be that feeling of heartbreak at President-Elect Trump is just excess gas – but we’ve been doing a lot of political chat lately admittedly with the occasional foray into Thompson and Baldwin, but in the interest of segueing us back towards the writing which this blog pretends to be about, I thought I’d talk a little bit about language.

There are a bunch of phrases things that have been on my mind of late, mostly of which are obliquely do with Politics and the English Language. So this letter is brought to you in five parts, by four words.

Part 1 is brought to you by the word ‘mirrorwall’:

I wanted to share this relevant and interest video:

This video gives a meme – as in Dawkins not as in Grumpy Cat – based explanation of the echochamber.

The video is interesting and informative and goes further and deeper in its analysis than most of the stuff I’ve been hearing about echochambers lately. And without using either term it ties echochambers together with the other trendy word of the moment: post-truth.

I am sick of both of those terms so I’m trying to get the mirrorwall of Facebook and liarworld some traction. Expect hashtags.

Part 2 is brought to you by the words ‘nuance’ and ‘taboo’:

Another thing that happens on the mirrorwall is the gradual erosion of nuance. In an attempt to avoid straw-men I’m going to ignore the badguys here and talk about my own people: bleeding heart lefty liberals.

We’ve talked before about how when Ken Clarke suggested that consensual sex between a 15 and 18 year old is a different sort of rape to say, systematic sexual abuse or forcible sexual assault – admittedly in his usual cack-handed way – he triggered this sort of response, calling for his resignation and branding him a ‘rape-apologist’.

There was a debate to be had with Clarke’s ideas about sentencing (which didn’t seem terribly well researched). None of that was addressed though, because the issue was his phrasing at one minor point. ‘Rape means rape’ said the critics (and they were right, in so far as Brexit means Brexit), and then they suggested only other position was to be a full blown ‘rape-apologist’.

So discussion of a word with colloquial, informal, formal, legal, metaphorical and historical meanings and associations, a word which describes a range of different sorts of acts with varying degrees of severity and consequence, and which affect individuals in drastically different ways, becomes a catch all term to be treated in one way . . . mostly just with disgust and rage at the offender. The issue has fallen into the murky area of psychology and language marked taboo* and serious public discussion has become near impossible.

Nuance does not mean justification, understanding is not forgiveness, mitigation is not erasure. Drawing a distinctions between one type of thing and another, does not mean that both can’t be reprehensible, and saying x is worse than y is not to say y is acceptable.

Nuance, kids, means nuance.

Part 3 is brought to you by the word ‘cultural-appropriation’:

This and the next section contain another pair of problematic words that are just bugbears of mine: cultural-appropriation** and privilege***.

Cultural appropriation is not inherently a bad thing. In fact I would argue it is admirable. For example when Chinua Achebe took the European tradition of the novel and turned it into a part of Nigerian culture, inspiring other writers across post-colonial Africa.

3 i) Humans are cultural beings we learn from each other. We borrow and remake things.

3 ii) Using other cultures is problematic only when it becomes stereotyping or racist or offensive or exploitative or any number of other genuine problems to do with cultural interaction. These are the words are the arguments against any given act of cultural appropriation, just being cultural appropriation is a classification as a value judgment it is meaningless.

3 iii) The “say no to culture’s borrowing from one another” approach looks at culture in a static, essentialised  and race/nationalistic (lowercase ‘r’, lowercase ‘n’). Cultural appropriation is a way of treating other cultures as quaint and different, when in reality culture is an ongoing, changing, living thing that morphs and rubs off on the cultures around it.

3 iv) Western culture is already whitewashed as is, without making every white artist out there avoid characters, styles, or ideas from different cultures.

3 v) Wouldn’t the reductio for this argument has us taking every Beatles LP and business suit off of every Japanese person, banning Celtic crosses from Christian graveyards, using hammers only with careful respect for our first tool using human ancestors’ hunter-gatherer culture. . .

3 ii) Reprise: Using other cultures is problematic only when it becomes stereotyping or racist or offensive or exploitative. These words are arguments against an act of cultural appropriation, just being cultural appropriation is not.

Part 4 is brought to you by the word ‘privilege’:

My deal with privilege is the same but different. Because unlike cultural-appropriation, privilege as an idea is genuinely useful and describes an actual source of cognitive blockage.

As a straight, white, educated, bourgeois, cis-male who speaks English and has full use of my body a reminder that my world view reflects that privilege is a super useful reminder to me to be empathetic and  can reduce the times I assume that I can generalise from my life to the lives of others. It reminds me to think of Others complexly.

What privilege is not, is an argument against having a view on a subject. Opinions aren’t wrong because they come from a privileged person. They are wrong because of logic, or facts, or faulty assumptions. Shutting down comment from anyone not directly affected by an issue is a cheap ad hominem, that almost always has an unpleasant whiff of the self-righteous about it. It rejects the possibility of solidarity, of empathy, and shuts down debate.

Privilege as an idea is a useful thought-tool for the privileged, and reminding them of it is not a bad move when its clear that their privilege is clouding their judgment. But I rarely see it used to persuade, it’s normally just given as a reason to ignore someone.

Part 5 is brought to you by all words:

Generally, I think we’d all think better if we avoided language that allows us to too easily dismiss other people and their opinions (privilege), buzz-words that obscure clearer ideas (cultural appropriation), that make us treat all differences of opinions as if they were all the vilest (taboo) and most extreme (nuance) opposition to our own view, or debating straw-men versions of the Other with people who already agree with us (mirrorwall).

I apologise for so long a  letter, I left it too close to the deadline. If I’d had more time I might have written it shorter, and made it more nuanced.

Yours extensively,

Jon

*Taboo is a generally interesting area that I would recommend anyone with an interesting in language or psychology – like, say, a writer – should look into. The best accounts I’ve read are in Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought and Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis.

**Defined by Wikipedia as ‘the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture.’

*** Defined by google as a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.

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Dear Jim… (#5) re: When Reasons Not to Write Aren’t Reasons Not to Write

He started his epistle with an epigraph. What a nob.

– Overheard while walking near my own mouth.

Dear Jim,

Firstly, and obviously, get well soon.

Secondly, the answer to your question of when to stop is just as obviously: Never; ‘Starve a fever, feed a cold, but work through both,’ as my mother never actually said, but should have. Which is why my bosses have always applauded me for sitting at my desk hacking up the most infectious parts of my lungs, before passing off freshly moistened files to my soon to be just as poorly workmates. Go Capitalism.

But thirdly – and mostly – I wanted to pick up on your reference to Amis:

“Amis is damn right when he talks about stepping back !!!!!FOR A MOMENT!!!!, and going to do something else: not slamming one’s face endlessly against a wall of words.” 

The emphasis there is mine, and I bring it up because it triggered a particular bugbear of mine.

Far too often people seem to think that art requires some sort of hermetically sealed Ivory Tower with a south facing window and just the right humidity and temperature for your pet muse to whisper in your ear without getting tongue cramp. Which is fine if you are happy just doodling. Like, you can get a ton out of just doing creative stuff every now and again as a hobby.

But if you want to write something good, if you want to be read without embarrassment, or even to read at all… you do actually have to write. And you have to write a lot.

For some reason in the 1800s the view shifted from artist as organ grinder/monkey combo, to artist as visionary. They forgot artist and artisan come from the same root and started thinking of artists as ‘brilliant’ or ‘zeitgeisty’ or ‘so fetch’. Artists are not any of those things, they are the less calorific half of bread-and-circuses.

Stepping away from the words is fine, as long as it is about managing your energy or health. My basic thing is that if your reason for not writing wouldn’t fly as a reason for not doing your actual job if you have one, then it just isn’t good enough.

If you are a writer, and you lack inspiration, so fucking what? You want to protect your precious art? It’s not that precious. Set yourself deadlines and meet them. Hate the work you produce by all means, but produce it. Anyone can write when the muse is balls deep in all your brain holes, but the point of being a writer is that we WRITE. The universe can’t do all the heavy lifting.

If you’re blocked then you need to put your arse back in the chair and work at it. If you have no ideas then sit down and brainstorm, read some non-fiction that looks like it might trigger something, find a specific market and let their guidelines direct you to something. But don’t leave that chair until you’ve written something.

It winds me up no end to hear things like: ‘I can’t make myself write. Writing for money/to a deadline/on cue/every day hurts the art’. When I worked nine-to-five, I would finish the day exhausted, with whatever currency discipline is transacted in spent in not throttling my immediate manager. As a colossally lazy person, it was already excruciating to sit down to the genuinely taxing brain-work of writing. So once I had carved out the time, avoided all the temptations and apathies that lay between me and the word processor I had to write then, because tomorrow I might not have the wherewithal to drag myself to it.

Just try telling that person to wait for the muse.

And that sort of thinking misses the fact that first drafts are not Writing. They’re like 5% of it. What the muse gives you is always half-cocked and half-baked even at the best of times.

Fact: your first draft is ugly. Even at your best it is ugly. Too ugly to live. You have to beat the ugly out of it. That beating is basically 95% of the gig. If you sit around waiting for the muse, it means you’re not even doing that first 5%.

Lastly, writing is not meant to be fun. You shouldn’t enjoy it. Like childbirth it should be a vindictive punishment exacted against yourself for the sins of your ancestors. The whole process should be horrible, a trial by ordeal which leaves you not happy, but somehow satisfied, having been tested and having measured up.

Since quotations are apparently a major constituent of letters, ideally from poetry – specifically James Baldwin where available – I’ll leave you with this poem, reconstructed from memory because as far as Google seems to think Dorothy Parker is the only person to have said it:-

I have a confession,

And this is it:

I hate to write,

Love having writ.

I am willing to admit this last point about self-flagellation may owe more to the Protestant work-ethic of my own conscience, who dismisses anything enjoyable as sinful*, but I stand by the rest no matter how Calvin-inflected your conscience is.

il_fullxfull-306934858

A piece of writing that is a metaphor for what writing should feel like. 

So here’s the cliff notes version of this rant to pass on to anyone you meet whose excusing themselves from writing. After cussing them out tell them:

(1) don’t get prissy about ‘inspiration’, just write daily or close to it;

(2) if you don’t write today, you have nothing to rewrite tomorrow, and rewriting > writing, so write daily or close to it; and

(3) if you enjoy doing anything, you’re doing it wrong; and you won’t enjoy writing daily or close to it.

In the print edition of this blog, I’ll just turn this into a listicle.

Yours curmudgeonly,

Jon

P.S. *Imagine how tragic it must be for this conscientious conscience to be housed in such a dissipated layabout. Only the self-loathing makes all that laziness palatable.

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